A Few Thoughts on Modi’s Latest Cabinet Reshuffle
In Sunday’s Cabinet Reshuffle, Nirmala Sitharaman was named as the nation’s Defence Minister, making her the first woman to head this ministry full-time. Previously, Indira Gandhi held this post when she was Prime Minister, but as I tweeted earlier: “It’s a bit different when you award yourself the job”.
With Sitharaman at the Defence helm (and Sushma Swaraj with External Affairs), women make half the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in the Indian government. Now don’t get me wrong, I completely agree — and would like to stress — that giving Sitharaman the Defence portfolio speaks volumes about her ability and the job she did in her previous stint as Minister of State (Independent Charge), Commerce and Industry. Sitharaman has been recognised for being perfectly in sync with Modi’s missives in bilateral negotiations, not to mention her role as a remarkably efficient spokesperson for the BJP prior to joining the government. But the fact that she’s just the second woman to be appointed to this role highlights the symbolic power of this decision — a decision that portends well for women in Indian politics, even more so from a party deemed to be patriarchal.
As Omar Abdullah tweeted:
With respect to Defence, Sitharaman should deliver on a couple of high-profile promises that have been previously mooted, but haven’t materialised yet. For example, the Ministry should seriously consider introducing a joint command for all three armed forces. This would not only promote synergy within the army, navy, and air-force, but also afford the government streamlined military advice from a single source. The MoD, under Manohar Parrikar, had earlier signalled their intention in introducing a tri-service chief in the near future. Here, it would be ideal for Sitharaman to complete what her predecessor started. Similarly, all eyes will be on the new Defence Minister when it comes to Modi’s emphasis on ensuring India becomes self-reliant in manufacturing defence equipment — a huge task, given that the country currently imports 65% of its military equipment.
On another note, not only has Modi managed to command the headlines by elevating Sitharaman, — which is what he probably hoped for, after last week’s RBI revelations and the demonetisation fiasco, — but he also virtually sealed the deal for the 2019 elections. I say this because — as his own party members mentioned— Modi’s reshuffle did consider, and successfully ‘balanced’ caste equations.
For example, Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore and Gajendra Singh Shekhawat were given roles in the reshuffle as the party had suffered negative publicity in the (traditionally BJP voting) Rajput community after gangster Anandpal Singh was killed in police encounter. This move is sure to appease the Rajputs, who make up 8–10% of the votebase in Rajasthan — especially keeping in mind the forthcoming state assembly election and the 2019 General Election.
Elsewhere, Shiv Pratap Shukla was named as the Minister of State in the Ministry of Finance in what can be construed as a political balancing act in Uttar Pradesh (UP), for Shukla is widely considered as a rival to Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. His appointment will send a consoling message to the Brahmins in UP unsettled with the fact that a Thakur is their Chief Minister.
Now all there’s left is to see how this cabinet performs in the last 18 months of this government. For as Modi decried to his new cabinet before Sunday's oath-taking ceremony: “Please perform. We need to show results”.